Russian Penguins (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A risky sports business in Russia

Documentary film “Russian Penguins” is as absurd as its very title suggests. Although I really have no idea on how much of the testaments from the interviewees in the documentary is actually true, the documentary is still engaging as cheerfully presenting numerous absurd aspects of its main subject, and it eventually comes to us as an amusing but ultimately disturbing cautionary tale about one very risk sports business Russia during the 1990s.

During its first half, the documentary shows and tells us how things were quite dire for the Red Army hockey team of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. After the era of the Soviet Union was officially ended around the end of 1991, the Red Army hockey team and its legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov became desperate and helpless without any government funding to support them, and we later see a series of archival photographs which vividly show us the hopeless status of their home stadium during that period.

As Russia slowly began to try democracy and capitalism around that time, many businessmen in US saw the potential of new business markets. Howard Baldwin was one of such guys, and he happened to see an interesting business opportunity from the Red Army hockey team, which, as shown in director/co-producer Gabe Polsky’s previous documentary “Red Army” (2014), had been quite famous as one of the leading ice hockey teams in the world. Although many talented Red Army team members had already moved to US for more money and success, Badwin came to consider remodeling the Red Army hockey team into a profitable enterprise, and that is how he came to found the Pittsburgh Penguins, which was going to be the American partner of the Red Army hockey team.

At first, this change on the Red Army hockey team did not look that hopeful, just like the social/economic situation of Russia during that period. Although Tikhonov and his general manager Valery Gushin were cooperative, there was not much improvement despite that, and Baldwin eventually came to recruit Steve Warshaw, a marketing expert who was hired to improve and promote the image of the Red Army hockey team and its American partner.

Warshaw willingly talks to us about his bold and outrageous attempts to enhance the profitability of the hockey team. After the disastrous opening game in 1993 which turned out to attract far less audiences than expected, this rather eccentric marketing whiz went all the way for any possible way to attract more audiences. For instance, when he came to learn that a certain underground spot in the home stadium had been actually used as a strip club, he did not hesitate to hire those strippers working there, and an archival video clip shows us those strippers gliding into the ice rink while being ready to take off their clothes.

And that was just the beginning of Warshaw’s more outrageous tactics, which worked better than expected despite some hiccups. When he hired a circus group, the group agreed to have their several bears serve and drink beer in front of the audiences, and that was pretty sensational enough to draw a lot more audiences, but, alas, there later came an unfortunate incident of minor injury due to one drunken guy who unwisely tried to tease one of these bears.

Anyway, the Red Army hockey team seemed to rise to another fame quickly along with its American partner, and that was when Michael Eisner, who was the CEO of Disney during that time, entered the picture. Although he was not particularly interested in ice hockey, he seriously came to consider buying the merchandise rights associated with the Pittsburgh Penguins and its Russian partners, and he even thought of making a sequel to “The Mighty Ducks” (1992) set in Russia.

Baldwin and Warshaw were certainly excited by how much they would get once they accepted Eisner’s offer, but their dream did not last long as the Russian society became quite chaotic and volatile in its clumsy experiment with democracy and capitalism. As the situation got a lot more unstable and lawless in Moscow, Baldwin and Warshaw became quite concerned, so they sought for help from those local high-ranking authorities, but they did not get much help while also cornered by a bunch of local mob figures, who were quite willing to take over Baldwin’s portion in the Red Army hockey team.

Warshaw claims that he was often monitored and intimated by those dangerous people mainly because of Gushin, but there is no clear evidence to support his claim, though it is apparent that the circumstance surrounding the Red Army hockey team was quite dangerous. Around that time when Baldwin and Warshaw walked away from their increasingly risky business venture, several figures involved with the Red Army hockey team were killed under mysterious circumstances, and Gushin, who looks rather more suspicious as we get to know him more, does not tell us much in front of the camera while quite amused by Warshaw’s accusations against him.

On the whole, “Russian Penguins” is a solid companion piece to “Red Army”, and I was entertained by its many absurd moments which make a good contrast with the darker moments later appearing in the documentary. I still have some doubts on how reliable some of its interviewees are, but, what the hell, they and others give a fun and interesting story to observe and reflect on for many reasons, so I will not grumble for now.

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